27 September 2010

What do YOU think: Has travel gotten safer for women?

Help me out, won't you? I'm looking for some comments from women who have backpacked in Europe in the last few years. 

If you're new here (welcome) here's what the project documented on this blog is all about: last summer, I traveled around Europe using both a 1963 edition of Europe On Five Dollars a Day and copies of my mother's letters from her Grand Tour in '67. I was looking at How Things Have Changed (Or Haven't) on the backpacker trail since that time. Now I'm working on a book about the experience (forthcoming from Perigee, Spring 2012).

One of the things that Mom talked about--at length--was sleazy, sketchy, grabby Italian men. She encountered them all over the continent, not just in Italy. I've included one of her letters below. (I should note that she also met one or two totally wholesome Italian men, but they were, sad to say, the exception.)

Here's the thing: I'm not female. It's kind of hard, then, for me to say whether or not this has changed--or, for that matter, if Europe has become a safer, more comfortable place for women travelers (solo or otherwise) in other ways. Maybe everything is different. Maybe it's the same as ever. I realize that my Y chromosome makes it rather difficult for me to know for sure, no matter how much I tried to be aware of the goings-on around me. 

From conversations with my fellow travelers--and reading various travel blogs--I got the impression that, yes, things have changed, at least to a large degree. Travel is safer; scumbags are fewer. Elizabeth Gilbert echoed this sentiment in Eat, Pray, Love (also quoted below) But I'd like to hear more thoughts, more stories, if anyone would be willing to share. I'm genuinely curious to know what's changed; it's an important piece of the then-and-now comparison of the book, but one that I really can't fill in based on my own experiences.

I'd also love to hear any other thoughts on the specific topic of being a female traveler in Europe in the twenty-first century (or, for that matter, in any era).

So. I'd really appreciate any stories, observations, or insight anyone would care to share. It'll help make for a better (and more accurate) book. If you're comfortable sharing your thoughts, please comment below or, better yet, e-mail me at doug@douglasmack.net. And, of course, I'll only quote you with permission. Thanks in advance!

And now, here's what Mom had to say in one of her letters (and I should note that this story is just one of many):
Dear Bob,
Do you know why Italian men are so awful? Because they start very young. Tonight we had a hysterically funny experience. We walked to the train station to find out what time our train leaves tomorrow. On the way back we were “blessed” with the escort of 4 young men—whose ages we estimate to have averaged 15 (at the very oldest) . . . At one point there were also 2 soldiers (Italiano) and one other guy, but they left 2/3 of the way back here. Bob, these kids ended up walking us home from the station—which is about a mile—all the way Ann and I spoke French to each other and these little boys were trying to address us in various languages—French, Italian, English, and German. Poor kids—we really frustrated their attempts to communicate. Ever been told “I love you” in 3 diff. languages by a 14-year-old? I hope you appreciate the humor of the situation, for Ann and I are still laughing. When we got to our pensione, Ann invited them up to meet our father, an invitation which they declined. 
Italian men are very ‘attentive.’ One just came over—ugh. . . . I cannot wait to see YOU.
Here's what Elizabeth Gilbert had to say on the same subject in Eat, Pray, Love: 
I ask around, and everybody here agrees that, yes, there's been a true shift in Italy in the last ten to fifteen years. Maybe it's a victory of feminism, or an evolution of culture, or the inevitable modernizing effects of having joined the European Union. Or maybe it's just simple embarrassment on the part of young men about the infamous lewdness of their fathers and grandfathers. Whatever the cause, though, it seems that Italy has decided as a society that this sort of stalking, pestering behavior toward women is no longer acceptable. 
So. Thoughts? Really, seriously: I appreciate any comments anyone cares to offer. This book will be a lot better for it. 


  1. I agree with Elizabeth Gilbert, to a point. I spent time in Italy at 15 and at 20 - the first time with my parents, the second with three female friends. When I was there with my parents, men on the street kept their distance and didn't address me, that I remember, except for the occasional "Hey, bella!" from afar. Some waiters were a little overly attentive, but harmlessly so - nothing out of line at all.

    When I visited with my friends, it was actually a pretty interesting case study. One of the other girls and I are blonde, while the other two are brunettes, one with very dark hair and the other with medium-brown. No one approached any of us to the point of touching us or making us feel threatened, but there was a fairly steady stream of comments directed our way, mostly to my other blonde friend and I. "Hey, Blondie! I love you!", "Blondie! Que bella!" - things like that. The two most memorable were: 1) as we were walking out of the train station the morning after our arrival (we stayed about 2 miles from central Florence, and took the local train into town), a man sitting on a wall next to the sidewalk leaned past one of my brunette friends and pointed at me, saying "I love you," then did the same to my blonde friend behind me when I ignored him; 2) waiting for a train the following morning, five men on a passing train leaned out the windows (two from one, three from another further down the train), yelling the usual "Blondie, bella, etc." at us and waving. Since their train wasn't actually stopping, we waved back and blew them kisses, which was met with more enthusiastic shouting and waving.

    It seemed to me that all the comments we heard were made in good humor, and the men making them never approached us too closely or attempted to touch us at all. My impression was that it was something of a game, not intended to make us uncomfortable. I think, had there been fewer of us traveling together (or, maybe, had all of us been brunette), we would have received much less overt attention, because the men wouldn't have wanted to make women traveling alone nervous, whereas with four women traveling together, they figured it was all in good fun. I spent some time in the city by myself while my friends were in a museum I'd already been to and didn't get any comments of that type during my time alone.

    From what I've heard of traveling in Europe in decades past, the lewdness and lasciviousness that seems to have been present in Italy years ago just aren't there anymore - now it's just an expression of appreciation for women the Italians see as exotic. (And they do the same thing to particularly well-dressed/attractive Italian women.)

    Italy was the only place in Europe I encountered anything like that - I spent most of a year living in Mediterranean France and traveling through Austria, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Ireland and France and never heard random comments on my appearance anywhere else, except for the occasional German tourist in France approaching me for directions, assuming I was German because of my coloring.

    Whew - sorry for the rambling response, but it's something I've thought a lot about as well. :) Good luck with your book!

  2. Thanks so much for the comment, Jessalyn! Those are some really interesting stories and insights.

  3. I think the behavior of the current leader of Italy must say something about what is or is not socially acceptable there.

  4. While not Italy specific, I think that there are still specific problems that women face when travelling. Especially that in far too many countries rape and sexual assualt crimes against foreign countries are put in the 'too hard' basket by local police and that the media portrayl of the young, blonde, white woman is sometimes the only contact that some men have for decades which makes travel a bit different for women. I lost count of the times I had been groped and asked for my hourly rate while living in Korea which isn't the worst place in the world for a white woman to be in.

  5. Yikes. Thanks for sharing, Stef--an important reminder that there are still way too many places where this behavior is fairly common.

  6. My experience living in Italy in 1997 was similar to Jessalyn. The men were definitely persistent, but not aggressive. As a brunette who spoke passable italian, I was never subjected to anything relentless. My other brunette friend and I were walking home an Italian guy was walking with us and chatting us up. When I turned him down, he asked me to translate so he could hit on my friend, who didn't speak Italian. Had to admire his moxie. He was harmless, though.

    How you dress, act, and look does matter on this account, I believe. In Jordan, there was a distinct difference between how men reacted to me if my shoulders were showing or if they were covered. Some females refused to cover up, but to me the constant catcalls weren't worth it so I dressed at least somewhat modestly when out. There is one city in particular outside of Petra where the guide books warn women to choose their hotel extremely carefully, and sadly I know of someone people who were sexually harassed and assaulted while there. That said, I've spent a lot of time alone wandering through cities all over the world from the age of 18 to 35 and never once had a problem.

  7. Thanks, El. That's some serious audacity on the part of the guy who wanted you to translate.

    BTW, Andrew O. passed along the link to your blog and I've been been meaning to comment over there. . . .


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